Diane Braunstein has helped speed Social Security benefits to thousands

August 10, 2011

Diane Braunstein’s large smile and warm laugh can be infectious. She speaks calmly as she sits in a high-backed, dark wooden chair in her spacious Baltimore office, a master bureaucrat.

If that seems a cold or callous characterization, her actions have been anything but. One look at her résuméshows she’s spent a lifetime mastering the minutia of process and regulation on behalf of the elderly, the ill and the disabled at the Social Security Administration and other organizations.

Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue appointed Braunstein director of a program called Compassionate Allow­ances in 2007 after she helped him about 20 years earlier when his terminally ill father could not quickly obtain benefits.

The two were working together at the Department of Health and Human Services. Astrue’s father developed glioblastoma, an often-fatal brain cancer that resulted in a coma. Astrue found himself trying to file for benefits on behalf of someone who wasn’t able to speak.

“It was a huge surprise and a time of high anxiety,” he said. “Having someone as competent as Diane was a great blessing.”

This year, Braunstein was named one of four finalists for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal after Compassionate Allowances cut waiting times for the approval of disability benefits from months to an average of two weeks for thousands of people.

The Service to America medals are awarded annually to government workers by Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group.

Accelerated benefits were approved for about 45,000 people in 2010 through Compassionate Allowances. The SSA is expecting about 20,000 more this year.

Braunstein can sum up her life’s work simply: “It’s about a commitment to public service.”

She said it’s not uncommon for people with rare or terminal diseases to become burdened with a slew of more paperwork from the SSA.

“The temptation is to keep asking for more and more evidence,” she said. “It actually slows down the approval of the benefit.”

When Astrue’s father was afflicted with glioblastoma, Braunstein helped Astrue navigate the system, using her inside knowledge to show him quick and efficient ways of getting benefits.

Astrue said the idea for Compassionate Allowances arose partly from his experiences. The program started to take form in 2007, when he appointed Braunstein as director.

Braunstein and the SSA then worked to build a list of 100 illnesses that would qualify for accelerated processing times through the program. Most diseases on the list are rare, hard to treat and terminal, such as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and acute leukemia. The SSA held public hearings to find the diseases that would fit the bill for a compassionate allowance.

“The things you find remarkable are the people who come forward to testify,” she said. “We had a dad come and testify about having lost his child to cancer. . . . People’s interest in coming forth to improve the system even after they’ve experienced great difficulty or sorrow was really very touching to me.”

One year later, the program was up and running.

Braunstein “came in very focused,” Astrue said. “There was an awful lot of detail that needed to be worked out. Given how long it takes to get things done in the federal government, she really moved this along very swiftly.”

Braunstein’s commitment to the elderly, disabled and ill goes back much further.

Her first job out of college was for a Manhattan congressman in the late 1970s, working on one of the first “meals on wheels” programs for elderly and disabled residents on the East Side. There, she gained her first exposure to SSA claims, mostly dealing with such issues as misplaced checks. But when Social Security nearly went bankrupt about the same time, she sensed an opportunity.

“I could see the baby boom 75 years out and thought, ‘Gee, there might be a career in there for me,’ ” she said.

She wrote 60 pages of a House Ways and Means committee report for the amendments to Social Security financing in 1983.

Since then, she’s worked on Capitol Hill as well as for a number of private organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Her work has also taken her around the world, as the artwork on her office walls shows. Photos from a National Governors Association trip to Nara, Japan, hang across the room from a watercolor of Mackinac Island, Mich. She was appointed director of aging for the State of Michigan in the 1990s.

She now deals with matters of Social Security overseas as associate director of the Office of International Programs, a position she was appointed to in 2009, while also keeping tabs on Compassionate Allowances occasionally, she said.

It’s a long title with long hours, she said. But when she isn’t working, she’s attending Washington Performing Arts Society events and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performances. Her passion for the arts grew out of an interest in classical and pop music composition many years ago, she said. She was also once the stage manager for a folk festival near her home in Takoma Park.

Public service work runs in the family. She remembers her mother, a member of the League of Women Voters and a teacher, taking her to volunteer at the polls during elections. “There was never an election where we didn’t take people to the polls and help them to vote,” she said.

Braunstein grew up in New York and graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree in political science, although, she said, “in truth, it’s political philosophy.”

“I read a lot of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, the Federalist Papers — stuff like that,” she said. “From Plato to here, it’s a leap, but I was always interested in Washington and public policy.”

If Plato and Aristotle taught her anything about Washington, she said, it would be that history often repeats itself.

“Things don’t change much,” she said. “You think they do, but there is a lot of similarity over time.”

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